Mathematics and diversity

It’s 2015! (or 2016)

When the media asked the new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau why 50% of his cabinet were made up of women, his simple response garnered international press.

When it comes to gender parity among tenured Mathematics faculty in Canada, it is more like 1995 or even 1985.  In a study from January 2015, most Mathematics departments in Canada do not have women making up even one-quarter of their tenured or tenure-track faculty.

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At the Ryerson Mathematics Department, 20% of our tenured or tenure-track faculty are women. Tenured professors often leave the academy after about 30 years, so it could take many years for us to reach gender parity.

Houston we have a problem

In my recent interview with noted UBC mathematician Izabella Laba, she described how she was told by a high school teacher that she should get married and not pursue mathematical research. This was very sobering story coming from one of our top Canadian mathematicians.

Izabella’s experience, I am afraid, is not unique, and is not confined to discrimination over gender. Racialized people have had a difficult time historically gaining access to the academy, as have LGBTQ folks, and those with disabilities.

I’m a white, gay male professor. During my doctorate I do recall being told by a professor that I should not be open about my sexuality as some of his colleagues were uncomfortable with it. It took some time to process what I was being told, but that conversation has stayed with me.

We have made big progress in our hiring practices, not just at Ryerson but also across the country. There is much greater openness and awareness of diversity in Mathematics departments. We frame this within our university faculty job ads, which include the statement:

“Ryerson University is strongly committed to fostering diversity within our community. We welcome those who would contribute to the further diversification of our staff, our faculty and its scholarship including, but not limited to, women, visible minorities, Aboriginal people, persons with disabilities, and persons of any sexual orientation or gender identity. “

My colleagues don’t care who I love. They’ve met my husband and think he’s awesome (which he is, by the way). We are light years ahead of the situation from when I was completing my doctorate in the mid-nineties.

Manil Suri is an openly gay mathematician and novelist who wrote a great piece in the New York Times entitled “Why is Science so Straight?” While race and gender diversity has received a great deal of attention (despite the persistent inequalities), LGBT diversity in STEM is much less discussed. This is partially self-generated: he notes a statistic from a recent study that 43% of the LGBTQ STEM workforce is closeted.

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Manil Suri.

Queer mathematicians need to be more visible, we need more data, and we need to network more. The Queer in STEM survey is an excellent step in the right direction. Also,  check out the networking and support provided by Out in STEM.

The other WMDs

A new book of relevance to diversity in mathematics is “Weapons of Math Destruction” by mathematician Cathy O’Neil. The book’s thesis is that algorithms and analytics are fostering inequality: targeting certain demographics and treating them (from everything from loans to prison sentences) differently based on their diversity. The book is getting lots of buzz.

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CNN provocatively ran the headline “Math is Racist” in its review of the book.  O’Neil says on her blog that she isn’t a fan of the title (although she likes the review). But the title makes a strong point.

Our collective challenge

Canada’s diversity has changed dramatically for the better in my lifetime. I see that diversity reflected in the students at Ryerson. For example, among my own graduate students half are women, and only one-third have European roots.

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My students and I take a selfie at film The Man Who Knew Infinity, based on the life of Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.

We can no longer hide behind claims that mathematics is genderless, racially neutral, and independent of LGBT issues. Mathematics is studied by people, and its application affects people.

Mathematicians need to embrace our diversity as a strength, not as a burden or weakness.

Diversity gives new perspectives and challenges the status-quo. Isn’t that what mathematicians actually do for a living?

Coming back to gender parity, I’ll finish by issuing my own Trudeau-esque challenge to Mathematics Departments across the country: Achieve gender parity.  We may not achieve this goal in 2016, but how about 2026?

Anthony Bonato

7 thoughts on “Mathematics and diversity

  1. Thank you for your interesting perspective.

    I wonder how much of this discrepancy or “diversity gap” has to do with the cultural messages seen by our students. Back in 2011, there were many articles about math being for boys and how the masculinity of math was perpetuated by our cultural gender messages. I wonder if other cultures/countries have experienced a similar phenomenon?

    Just a thought!
    – A 🙂

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  2. […] The truth is another matter. Our society has discriminated against people of color and women over a long period. It comes as no surprise then that both groups were historically ignored for their mathematical and scientific talents. There was a time, not so long ago, when women were not hired in mathematics departments, and the same was true for people of color. Even now, most mathematics departments in Canada and the US have fewer than 20% of their tenured faculty consisting of women. […]

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